Government needs to support sustainable soil management through policy: Opinion

As World Environment Day approaches on June 5, I would like to draw your attention to an issue that most of us are unaware of, but is nonetheless fundamental to our very existence.

A few years back, I visited Uttarakhand where I met up with a farmer. With great love, his family served us one of the finest meals I have ever had. The meal comprised sarson ka saag, makki ki roti, baigan-alloo ki sabji with freshly churned butter. As we were eating, the farmer told us that the food was from the “family plot”. “Family plot?” I wondered. He explained that they grew the food for the family in small parcels of land, separated from the acreage where crops for commercial use, drenched in chemicals fertlisers, herbicides and pesticides, were planted. The chemicals destroy all life in the field — from bees to snakes. He refused to feed his family this poison, an issue which we will revisit in a later column.

What blew me away was how such rampant use of chemical fertilizers could deplete the soil. Lifting a handful of the earth, the farmer said that it felt lifeless. The constant pouring of chemicals had ruined the productivity of the soil and robbed it of all organic matter and nutrients that nourished the plants. The chemicals had laid his land waste.

That farmer kindled my interest, and the more I dug into soil, the more I was fascinated, and horrified. Soil pollution and degradation are the greatest, and unacknowledged, environmental threats of our times, even though our existence depends on the soil.

About a third of the world’s soil is degraded. We are losing about 30 soccer fields of soil every minute. And at current rates of soil loss and degradation, we have just 60 years of harvest left globally, as per a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. This should worry us, as 95% of our food comes from the soil.

The sources of pollution are the usual human excesses: pesticides, fertilisers, industrial effluents, domestic and municipal wastes, agrochemicals and deforestation, which also increases erosion. Intensive farming, which demands the heavy use of chemical fertilizers, is the key cause of rapid soil loss and degradation. It’s a vicious cycle that our farmers are caught in.

Intensive use of chemicals reduces the ability of the soil to grow crops, necessitating farmers to use more expensive seeds and chemicals that they, and the soil, can ill-afford.

We treat soil like dirt, but it is actually pretty cool stuff. It takes some 500 to 1,000 years to create an inch of topsoil — the uppermost productive layer that is vital to grow our food. Soil buffers us against pollutants such as heavy metals. It filters water, making it nutrient- and mineral-rich. And soil is the largest carbon sink on land, storing over three times more carbon than forests and other vegetation!

Yet, the disgraceful destruction of soil continues unabated.

However, there are solutions. My farmer friend is keen to turn completely organic, till his land the way his forefathers did. States, including predominantly agricultural states such as Haryana, need to support such farmers, and encourage sustainable soil management through policy and financial instruments. This means pulling off the massive subsidy plugs on chemical fertilisers, and facilitating sustainable farming practices such as permaculture, zero-tilling, practices that restore degraded lands and use less water.

You can be part of the solution. Buy organic products, and opt for local and seasonal produce. Ditch that manicured garden, if you have space grow your own food. There is a wonderful positive trend, where weary urbanites are choosing to go back to the land, or taking up land to grow their own food. States like Sikkim have gone completely organic, so have countries like Bhutan.

The value of soil is inscribed in the Upanishads; “Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Care for it, and it will grow our food, our fuel, our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it, and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.”

We need to imbibe this ancient wisdom. Soil is not beneath us, literally and metaphorically. Do not treat it like dirt.

(Bindra is a former member of the National Board for Wildlife. She is the author of The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis.)

First Published:
Jun 04, 2019 03:20 IST

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